Bridging the Gap: Jen's Chinese Cash    (026)

   The eighties and nineties have seen an explosion of numismatic research and publishing in China, but largely without benefit to western collectors. Very little has been translated, and most of the collector oriented catalogs are for the Chinese market, with no western-language text, and often without a numbering system. Although several concordances and attempts at a comprehensive catalog have been started in the past 50 years by westerners, some of them reaching published form, the standard has remained Schjoth's 1912 catalog of his collection. Recently George Fisher published a very usefully enhanced photocopy version of Ding Fubao's 1940 catalog, the long-time standard among Chinese collectors, and a better work than Schjoth in every way though lacking in background information and sidelights such as calligraphy and weight varieties, and mother coins.
   When I learned that a new work, drawing on Chinese sources and authored by New York dealer and tireless ANS volunteer David Jen was already in press from Krause, I hoped that Chinese Cash: Identification and Price Guide would replace these works. Having examined it, I believe that it is more of a gap-filler and will help bring the western collector up to speed with his Oriental counterpart. It is not the ultimate Chinese cash catalog for the western collector. It will not replace Fisher's Ding, though the two books complement each other nicely and together make an excellent basic reference, better by far than Schjoth alone. Jen's work alone is a fair choice for someone who is not collecting the series and wants just one reference, but anyone acquiring coins should have Ding and/or Schjoth as well.
   In a nutshell, this is a non-comprehensive type catalog with fairly good rubbing illustrations, a number system, transliterated legends and attributions by emperor, cross-reference to S and FD numbers, market prices in two grades and, incorporated into the catalog portion, the sort of historical information contained in Schjoth, but of greater depth and recency. There is an extensive listing of pre-production and pattern coins, special sections on calligraphy varieties and counterfeits, and a dynastic list. Some Central Asian series are represented. Pinyin is used throughout. Uniquely, this work explains the importance many types have to the Oriental collector, a perspective richer than that gained from any western work.
   My biggest problem with Jen is its lack of comprehensiveness. The author has tried " . . . not to encumber this book with material that can be found in other catalogs prepared carefully by western writers . . ." but the result has been to omit many commonly-found types that appear in both Schjoth and the amazingly comprehensive Ding. The catalog numbers tell the story. Fisher's Ding covers the field in 2708 entries; Jen in 1491, including numerous charms, and some exotic types Ding missed. For knives and spades, Ding has 341 entries, Jen only 57, but including 5 missed by Ding. This means that many of the city-named late spades are simply missing, and the highly varied Ming knife is essentially served by a single entry. The complex coinage of Shun Zhih, enlivened by the transition from Ming to Manchu rule, has been deeply studied by Werner Burger. Leaving aside calligraphy differences, 76 types emerge from his plates, of which Ding lists 71 and Schjoth 57; Jen only 42. Certainly it is hard to fault any work in this complex and under-researched field for omissions, but here the omissions seem completely arbitrary. Missing are many types commonly available for under $50, while extreme rarities, priced in the thousands of dollars, are found on nearly every page. The generous margins and loose layout of the plates give the work a comfortable look, but I can't help feeling that 341 full-sized pages could have been used to cover the field more thoroughly.
   In an attempt "to avoid a cluttering of material" Jen has divided his main catalog into two parts, what he calls mainstream issues, and "variants." Apparently the idea was to provide one or more pieces of each reign title in Section I to ease the task of the page-through attributer. I have been unable to discern any criteria, however, for what was put in each section, nor indeed to what was left out of both. An atrtribution guide such as R.B. White's, requiring perhaps 10 pages, would eliminate the need for page-throughs and be helpful to the casual user as well.
   Aside from the inconvenience of flipping back and forth between two sections is the numbering problem. The number sequence runs historically from #1 through #868, with Taiping and other Rebel coins, Xinjiang (Turkestan) and other outlying series adding up to #928, which is sensible enough. Then Section II begins all over again with knife and spade "variants" from #929 to #1491, forcing the user to interpose the two number runs to keep his listing or collection in historical order. This alone will dissuade many collectors from using Jen's numbers as their organizing thread, and most dealers and auctioneers from referencing the work in their listings.
   There is a fascinating section on calligraphy varieties. Jen attempts a breakdown of the Wu Zhu (Han) and Kai Yuan (Tang) types, which, along with the earlier Ban Liang, are conservative series just now yielding their secrets to a few dedicated researchers using published hoard finds. Most western collectors, however, will find these pages more tantalizing than useful. In simplified form, Jen recounts the fascinating evolution of these types with rubbings and calligraphy descriptions as aids. Roger Doo is gradually publishing much more detailed studies, some in English, but I believe that only the most intrepid and patient of western collectors will be able to sit down with them and a handful of Wu Zhu or Kai Yuan and come up with accurate attributions. Jen's pages on Sung varieties, though treating only a few types, cover sources of variation that occur throughout the cash series and provide a good basic grounding in this important level of collecting. For Qing and Ming variations, which distinguish submints and years, one must still refer to Burger.
   The section on seeds, patterns, and trial pieces explains the casting process and the lovely pre-production coins used in making circulation issues. A few photos would have gone a long way to help readers distinguish the various stages. Mother, pattern, and production versions of a coin may be indistinguishable to a collector who has seen only the latter; most collections have well-made Qing or Song circulation cash hopefully labelled as seeds. The catalog of 223 pieces leads me to wonder again why these particular types were chosen, when presumably every regular issue coin had the same precursors during any given historical period. Jen's claim that each class (master, mother, pattern) has the same market value regardless of dynasty or issuer simply is not credible, nor are the low values he gives for these rare items. These "super coins" are easier to fake than circulation pieces, which must exhibit imperfections and patina, and in fact they have been extensively faked lately. Low and uniform prices across such a broad series suggest a market best entered with extreme caution.
   And indeed, the section on fake cash coins is quite inadequate. Jen provdes an interesting catalog of traditional forging methods with tips on how to detect them. This may help more experienced collectors with clumsy fakes, but it is no substitute for reviewing multiple examples with experts. Jen refers to the quality of Shen which adheres to genuine coins; to me this means the unconscious skill that comes of many such consultations, resulting in an ability to sense a bad piece without knowing how one does it. What information Jen provides is good, but a little knowledge can be a dangerous thing.
   More importantly, this section ignores entirely two categories most often found today, the amuletic copies, and the sophisticated new forgeries of the 1990s. Amuletic copies are made not to fool collectors or to circulate, but as charms bearing reign titles thought to be lucky. Certain reign titles and types of knife and spade coins are copied regularly, and some of the copies are nearly as old as their prototypes. Those with added pictorial elements are obvious as amulets, but others can fool less experienced collectors. Curiously, Jen has included a number of these pieces in with the coin listings, not always identified as such.
   The most dangerous forgeries, however, are those produced since about 1985 in China. Knowledgeable Hong Kong and Macau dealers will take a genuine rarity to mainland shops that specialize in forging old bronze items. They not only know what color soil encrustation and patina is appropriate for that issue, they are now able to duplicate it flawlessly. The problem has worsened to the point that collectors visiting China report genuine coins driven off the market by forgeries, and even the most reliable dealers unable to tell bad from good. There are no western dealers capable of distinguishing the recent crop of fakes, and they have been offered in major auctions. Excepting cheap, unpatinated, worn, or damaged coins, I now presume any cast coin coming out of China to be a forgery. As a dealer who has derived upwards of 25% of his income some years from this field, it pains me to say it, but this is not a good time to be collecting Chinese cast coinage. A book which will probably popularize the field could not have come at a worse time.
   The question I get most often about priced catalogs published in the Orient is, how accurate are their market values? Usually I don't even take the time to asses this feature, since I price by past experience. Indeed, I would still recommend that collectors look at my own past offerings, those of Frank Robinson and Sea Eagle, Taisei auctions, and the like. I did a survey of 16 pieces from my last price list that I could reliably find in Jen; his prices were lower for 8, just about equal for four, and higher for four. In general, I found enough congruence that I would look up a type I hadn't handled before, and would take counsel from his figure. But what do I make of the type I could have sold three of at $110 priced at $40 in Jen, or the one I couldn't sell for $65 valued at $120? Word to the wise: never rely on a single source for your market information! Pricing becomes especially arbitrary in a market flooded with fakes; if a buyer insists on buying high grade coins below catalog price, he will have no trouble doing so these days.
   Dealing in series exotic to the western collector I have always felt it important to stock references, and to asses them realistically. After many conversations with reference buyers I have come up with a formula for what every collector wants: historical and numismatic background information, a reasonably comprehensive catalog of types, all illustrated, preferably by clear photos incorporated in the catalog, a simple numbering system, an attribution guide if needed, collecting tips, variety information, and sidelights, market values, and perhaps a couple color plates to impart the flavor of the series - all for under $30, if you please! Few if any actual books do all this, of course. By these criteria I would give Jen's work more than a passing mark. It should be considered a useful supplement to what we already have, perhaps the first book that a novice would buy, definitely the second or third, depending upon the direction of one's interest. I am disappointed that Krause's distribution might is behind a work in our little field that is not the be-all, end-all of cash catalogs. Apparently this work came to them nearly in finished form, making it an economical publishing choice, especially without photos. With just a little bit of editorial input, and some consultation with collectors and dealers in the field, it could have been much more than it is, however.

Sample page from this book.

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